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Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: More of the same, in a good way

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : 1,249
inc VAT

The Galaxy S23 Ultra may be expensive, but it’s also a massive upgrade on last year’s best Android phone

Pros

  • Huge performance boost
  • Monstrous battery life
  • Stunning, colour-accurate display

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Price increase this year
  • Few changes elsewhere

Of the three phones Samsung unveiled at its annual Galaxy Unpacked event, it’s quite obvious that the S23 Ultra was the star of the show. The firm dedicated most of its launch event to talking about its latest flagship handset – so much of it, in fact, that I was beginning to think the S23 and the S23 Plus didn’t exist.

Now I’ve had a chance to properly test the S23 Ultra over the last couple of weeks, I can sort of see why. Reviving legacy Galaxy Note-like features alongside a fresh list of exclusive goodies, the S23 Ultra is an entirely different proposition from its siblings. If you have enough money to splurge on a fancy new phone in 2023, then the S23 Ultra is probably the one to aspire to.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: What you need to know

Samsung merged its Note and S-series lineup last year and, as 2023 begins, it’s clear the move has paid off. After all, Samsung would have likely made the stylus extinct if last year’s S22 Ultra hadn’t met sales expectations.

So, yes, the S Pen has returned for a second year, adding its usual blend of note-taking and doodling special sauce to what is the firm’s most capable handset yet.

Perhaps more importantly, however, Samsung has also listened to feedback from recent years and switched to Qualcomm chipsets across all regions. A tailor-made Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset powers this year’s phone, promising slightly boosted clock speeds compared with the base version (3.6GHz vs 3.3GHz), plus substantial performance and stamina upgrades on last year’s in-house Exynos 2200 chip.
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Elsewhere, the large 6.8in Dynamic AMOLED 2X display returns, with a QHD+ (1,440 x 3,088) resolution and a 120Hz refresh rate. Your storage choices include 256GB, 512GB or 1TB options – although you only get 8GB of RAM with the 256GB version. Otherwise, the pricier 512GB and 1TB models get 12GB of RAM.

Camera-wise, the S23 Ultra incorporates a massive 200MP main camera, which is a first for Samsung, in addition to a pair of 10MP optical zoom lenses (10x and 3x) as well as a 12MP 120-degree ultrawide and a 12MP (f/2.2) selfie shooter.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: Price and competition

We definitely need to talk about prices before we continue. The S23 Ultra starts at £1,249 for the base 256GB version, rising to £1,399 and £1,599 for the 512GB and 1TB models. If you recall, last year’s S22 Ultra started at £1,149, which means we have a substantial increase of £100 this year.

That’s one of the biggest generational price jumps we’ve seen from Samsung in recent times but the disappointing news doesn’t stop there. This cost increase is spread across the entire S23 range, with the base-level Galaxy S23 starting at £849 (up from £769) and the S23 Plus now costing £1,049 – another £100 price rise.

That’s not ideal but Samsung isn’t the only phone maker asking for more. No surprises here, but Apple’s iPhone 14 (£849), iPhone 14 Pro (£1,099) and iPhone 14 Pro Max (£1,199) have also increased in price. At least the S23 Ultra is cheaper than Apple’s equivalent, though not by much.

The previous Galaxy S22 Ultra still exists, of course and it currently costs around £880. Likewise, Samsung’s cheapest folding handset, the Z Flip 4, is priced at £899 – that’s a difference of £350.

There’s plenty of choice for Android outside of Samsung’s handsets, too. The Sony Xperia 1 IV closely matches the S23 Ultra in terms of price, at £1,200, but the cheapest of all of its competitors is the Google Pixel 7 Pro, which starts at just £849.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: Design, key features and S Pen

Despite a set of four new colour options – Phantom Black, Cream, Green and Lavender – there’s no hiding the fact that the S23 Ultra looks similar to last year’s model. Samsung says the curvature on the left and right edges of the screen is a bit more dramatic, but this isn’t something that was immediately obvious to me when I first picked it up.

It’s still a mighty brute of a phone – it weighs slightly more than the S22 at 234g – and its dimensions are pretty chunky, too, at 78 x 8.9 x 163mm (WDH). That’s larger than the iPhone 14 Pro Max, so the S23 Ultra is clearly better suited for the biggest of hands, as well as the deepest of pockets.

The S23 Ultra’s reflective aluminium sides are a nice touch, and I particularly like the frosted glass rear. The collection of rear-facing cameras is all placed evenly apart in the top-left corner of the handset, with the selfie camera situated within a small circular hole-punch notch at the top middle of the display.

The power button, which frustratingly still activates Samsung’s Bixby assistant when pressed, sits next to the volume rocker on the right edge. Meanwhile, the USB-C port, which supports 45W charging, is sensibly located on the bottom of the phone, between the speaker grille, dual nano-SIM slot and S Pen housing.

On that front, if you were expecting to see any dramatic changes for the S Pen in 2023, then prepare to be disappointed. The core capabilities remain exactly the same and the hardware hasn’t seen any form of upgrade, either.

Push the base of the S Pen inwards and it pops out from the bottom of the phone, allowing you to slide it out while simultaneously opening a menu of stylus-supported applications on the screen. From here, you can use the S Pen to jot down notes, doodle and even use it as a remote camera shutter; just press the button on the side while the camera app is open.

As you might expect, the S Pen feels just as good to use as it did on the S22 Ultra. Scribbling is nice and responsive and, while there’s not even the faintest whiff of pen-on-paper-like resistance, it’s intuitive to use and registered my illegibly written meeting notes without any problems.

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Where the S23 Ultra does differ from its predecessor, however, is in its use of recycled materials. The S23 Ultra contains 12 internal and external components (up from six in the S22), which are made up of discarded fishing nets, plastic from water barrels, aluminium and glass.

The S23 Ultra’s box and packaging is also made of 100% recycled paper, and the new Gorilla Glass Victus 2 screen protection contains an average of 22% “pre-consumer” recycled material as well.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: Display

On that note, the S23 Ultra’s AMOLED display measures 6.8in across the diagonal, which is the same as last year, and boasts a 1440p resolution with a 120Hz refresh rate. Outside its new “Advanced Vision Booster” feature – which adjusts onscreen colour tone and contrast at high ambient brightness levels – there’s not much new to report here, either.

In fact, I would go as far to say that this is exactly the same display as the S22 Ultra. There are two screen modes on offer, with the Vivid setting producing some seriously punchy colours. I preferred the Natural colour mode, however, which is easier on the eyes and in testing covered 92.5% of the sRGB gamut, with a total volume of 94.8% and an average Delta E colour accuracy score of 1.23.

The contrast ratio and black level are essentially perfect, and I recorded a peak screen brightness of 1,730cd/m² while displaying HDR content. It’s worth noting that it’s only possible to achieve this figure with the auto brightness toggle engaged in the phone’s settings menu. Otherwise, the maximum brightness reached 1,010cd/m².

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Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: Performance and battery life

The S23 Ultra comes with a Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 inside, which is Qualcomm’s most recent flagship processor. Strangely, this particular CPU comes with a “for Galaxy” designation which, according to Qualcomm, means that the maximum clock speed has been boosted to 3.6GHz, compared with 3.3GHz on the standard chipset.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra is an entirely different beast from its predecessor. Performance figures are night and day different in the Geekbench 5 test, with a huge 35% jump in multicore processing, closing the gap on Apple’s A16 Bionic chip.

Gaming performance is equally impressive. In fact, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 actually beat the iPhone 14 Pro Max in our testing, scoring a perfect 120fps in the onscreen portion of the Manhattan 3 test and achieving a whopping 281fps in the offscreen benchmark.

As ever, you get three storage options to choose from: 256GB, 512GB and 1TB, with the latter being exclusive to Samsung’s website. You get 8GB of RAM in the 256GB model, with 12GB inside the 256GB and 1TB versions.

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The 5,000mAh battery inside the S23 Ultra might be the same size as before but battery life has greatly improved, thanks again to the switch to Snapdragon. Indeed, the S23 Ultra lasted an astonishing 28hrs 41mins in our video playback test at the default FHD+ display resolution – that’s nine hours longer than the S22 Ultra and a whole lot better than its main competitors as well.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: Software

The S23 Ultra launches with Android 13 pre-installed, albeit with Samsung’s One UI 5.1 tweaks. A total of five years’ worth of security updates is promised, with four years of One UI and Android OS upgrades.

There are a handful of new software features with the One UI 5.1 update, including co-edit functionality in the Samsung Notes app when you’re on a call, as well as a fresh change to Samsung Knox. This security feature now gives you full visibility over which apps have access to your data, how it’s being used and a breakdown of where you might be at risk.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: Cameras

Predictably, Samsung is making a big song and dance about the S23 Ultra’s cameras in its marketing this year. The headline feature is the inclusion of a 200MP main sensor, which is the largest Samsung has ever incorporated in a phone to date, replacing the S22 Ultra’s 108MP unit.

It’s not the first 200MP camera we’ve seen in a smartphone, however. The S23 Ultra incorporates the same Samsung-made ISOCELL HP1 sensor as the Xiaomi 12T Pro and Motorola Edge 30 Ultra, which both launched last year. The rest of the camera lineup is much the same as before, and includes a pair of 10MP optical telephoto lenses (10x and 3.5x), a 12MP 120-degree ultrawide unit and a 12MP selfie camera.

Video of Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra | 100X Camera Zoom Test

More megapixels doesn’t always result in a better picture, of course, but Samsung has made a boatload of improvements throughout. This includes improved stabilisation courtesy of something called “Adaptive VDIS”, which is a software-level algorithm that analyses movement and detects lighting conditions in video and stabilises accordingly.

The new 200MP camera is an absolute star. Every image taken on the S23 Ultra is utterly sublime: rich and detail-packed combined with neutral colours. The new sensor has clearly made all the difference, especially if you’re jumping from the regular S22 to the S23 Ultra this year. Just look at that comparison:

Zoomed photography is also significantly improved. Zooming all the way up to 100x, the S23 Ultra’s telephoto images are better in almost every way, especially when it comes to detail capture. One thing to note here also is that the S23 Ultra’s zoomed shots are captured in a fraction of the time of the S22 Plus.

Portrait mode has received a healthy update, too, and can now capture more true-to-life skin textures, skin tones and hair colour, even in tricky lighting situations. This is a similar feature to Google’s Real Tone, used in its Pixel 7 smartphones.

Night shooting is also miles better, courtesy of a new pixel-binning tech that combines neighbouring pixels to help improve the lighting in a photo. In side-by-side images against the S22 Plus, you can really see the difference.

And you should be able to take better pictures and video of the night sky, too, with new Astro Hyperlapse and Astrophoto shooting modes, although the polluted view from my London flat meant I wasn’t able to test this fully. You can now shoot at 50MP in the Expert RAW app, up from 12MP previously, and 8K video is filmed at a wider angle than last year – an increase from 57 to 80 degrees.

On that front, I have very few complaints about the quality of the S23 Ultra’s video capture. It would be nice if Samsung’s “Super Steady” stabilisation tech could be enabled in the 8K and 4K shooting modes – it’s currently limited to QHD at 60fps – but otherwise, everything looks great, with snappy autofocusing and rich, vibrant HDR capture.

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Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: Verdict

There’s clearly a lot to talk about when it comes to the S23 Ultra’s cameras, but I’ve been most impressed this year with its substantial processing and efficiency improvements. I’m not often surprised by generational benchmark upgrades, but this update is one to remember.

The switch to Snapdragon is a smart move, especially for Samsung’s European customers, who have been stuck with Exynos-based Galaxy phones for what seems like an eternity. US Samsung fans, who have had the benefit of Qualcomm for a number of years already, might not feel the same way, but for those on this side of the Atlantic the S23 Ultra is a big upgrade.

The question remains whether prospective phone buyers pick up on these improvements, or whether the lack of changes elsewhere, paired with that price hike, puts them off altogether. That would be a shame, since across almost every metric, the S23 Ultra is the ultimate Android smartphone; if you have the money, it’s the handset you should be buying.

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